Parent sues Berkeley Unified over access to Israel-Palestine curriculum

A Berkeley parent filed a lawsuit against Berkeley Unified School District for refusing to turn over curriculum taught to 9th graders about Israel-Palestine, the latest flashpoint in tensions over the conflict in Berkeley schools.

The suit, filed by parent Yossi Fendel and The Deborah Project, a legal group defending the civil rights of Jews in schools, alleges that the school district violated California law by failing to respond to Fendel’s Public Records Act request for curriculum materials about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

It also claims that the lessons he was allowed to view were biased against Israel and antisemitic, violating state law and the district’s own policy on teaching controversial issues.

“For months, I’ve tried to have conversations with my kid’s teacher, with administrators, school board members, and others about how we can work together to teach about the war in our schools in such a way that protects all of our students. But they are not interested in such conversations,” Fendel, whose son is a 9th grader at Berkeley High, wrote in a Facebook post.

Teachers have said the curriculum, which aimed to teach multiple perspectives on Israel-Palestine, was developed by BUSD teachers and was reviewed by district officials to comply with its policy on controversial issues. The school district did not reply to requests for comment.

The suit, first reported by J., The Jewish News of Northern California, details Fendel’s repeated efforts to see a lesson set developed for 9th grade students on Israel-Palestine in the fall. The suit alleges district officials delayed turning over the lessons or gave him limited access, it claims, violating California Education Code and the California Public Records Act.

“The bottom line is, whether you’re a parent or a member of the public, you have a right to see what is being actually taught in schools,” said David Loy, legal director at the First Amendment Coalition.

Fendel requested to see the curriculum multiple times from December to February, according to emails shared in the suit, but BUSD initially allowed Fendel access to just five slides and said its policy was not to give parents access to curriculum in general. BUSD eventually turned over lesson sets in February, with the caveat that it was not in response to Fendel’s Public Records Act request, according to an email shared in the complaint.

The complaint claims BUSD intentionally hid the materials from Fendel because it knew the materials discriminated against Jews and Israeli-Americans in their “one-sided presentation of issues.”

The Deborah Project, which says it aims to remove antisemitic materials from schools and end attacks on Israeli-Americans, has filed legal complaints against multiple California school districts, including Hayward Unified and Mountain-View Los Altos High School District, alleging they failed to turn over curriculum pertaining to Israel and Jews.

Tension over Israel-Palestine curriculum

The curriculum has been the subject of controversy at Berkeley schools for months.

In March, over 150 community members came to a school board meeting to support teachers’ right to “teach Palestine.” At the meeting, several Jewish students and their families also said the lessons were biased, made them or their children feel uncomfortable or at worst, could foster antisemitism. Berkeleyside reviewed the lesson sets in a story published last month that summarized many of the slides.

Some Jewish parents, including Fendel, took issue with what they described as anti-Israel bias in the slides. He said they included examples “of perspectives that Israel is committing atrocities, genocide, terrorism, apartheid, and other similar crimes, but providing no perspectives that Palestinians are committing atrocities, genocide, terrorism, or similar crimes.”

Fendel also said the slides disproportionately include voices of anti-Zionist Jews, who he called “a fringe minority” within the Jewish community, and inappropriately rely on casualty figures by the Gaza Health Ministry, describing these and other issues in a document outlining his concerns about the lesson sets.

“It is good for our students to be taught about Palestine. But teaching about Palestine does not have to mean indoctrinating students with anti-Israel prejudice,” Fendel wrote in the Facebook post. As it is, he fears the curriculum will “exacerbate an already antisemitic climate, making our schools and our community less safe for Israelis and other Jews,” he wrote in an email.

The Berkeley school district has been thrust into the national spotlight over its handling of antisemitism since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and the ensuing war in Gaza.

federal civil rights complaint filed in February alleges that administrators ignored “severe and persistent” harassment of Jewish students for months, describing incidents from students being taunted about the Holocaust to students transferring classes because they felt uncomfortable with pro-Palestine content in classrooms.

Some Berkeley students and teachers have pushed back against the complaint, saying that it conflated antisemitism with criticism of Israel and was designed to make it harder to teach about the war in Gaza.

Teachers have described a climate of mistrust and hostility toward them as they attempt to teach about the war, saying their good faith effort to teach multiple perspectives about the war and fill a void for students has been met with a level of scrutiny from parents that makes teaching about the topic feel untenable. Some teachers say the pressure is designed to silence their teaching about Palestine, while some Jewish parents say they support teaching about Palestine, but in a more balanced way.

Teachers union president Matt Meyer described the situation as an unprecedented number of personal attacks and attempts to “micromanage our educators,” Meyer said at a school board meeting Wednesday.

“I have been teaching in Berkeley since 2006, and have never seen such negativity and distrust hurled at individual educators,” Meyer said.

“Parents have taken it upon themselves to educate our teachers on their worldview and demanded meetings not about how a student is doing in class or a particular grade, but a larger discussion of world events. Every word spoken by a teacher is being scrutinized, even out of context,” he said.

Some say the scrutiny is justified, particularly given how common it is to see pro-Palestine materials on a classroom wall or teachers wearing “Free Palestine” pins at Berkeley schools, while some teachers say they ought to be trusted to teach about the war in a manner that takes all perspectives into account.

Fendel hopes the suit will “shed some light on the process that created these shameful classroom materials so that the next iteration can have more information and less demonization,” Fendel wrote in his Facebook post. His aim is that Jewish students feel “as welcome in Berkeley schools as their peers do.”

https://www.berkeleyside.org/2024/04/12/berkeley-unified-israel-palestine-curriculum-lawsuit-deborah-project

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